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The Teaching Exchange: Teaching from the Outside In

This article was originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Derek Bruff

In this article, we feature excerpts from interviews with several Vanderbilt faculty members. We asked them to comment on their experiences “teaching from the outside in.”

A Complex Topic . A variety of differences can occur between students and teachers. That variety makes it difficult to talk about being on the “outside” or “inside” in a given teaching-learning environment, particularly when the differences are not visible when a teacher enters a classroom.

At least one faculty member took issue with the language of the phrase “teaching from the outside in.” Marie Hardenbrook , assistant professor of the practice in the Department of Teaching and Learning, said, “One of the things that bother me about thinking of oneself as ‘teaching from the outside in’ is that in that way of thinking, one positions oneself as ‘other.'” We are all other. We’re all privileged in some areas of our lives and not privileged in others.”

“I think teaching should be about dropping the assumptions we make about who we are,” Dr. Hardenbrook continued. “It should be about creating classroom environments where we are willing to reveal ourselves, name ourselves, and be honest about the places from which we come as we approach knowledge building.”

Linda Manning , director of the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center and lecturer in the Women’s Studies Program, agreed that everyone is sometimes the “other” and sometimes the “in,” but she added, “We should also acknowledge the power dynamic that some ‘others’ are seen as better than other ‘others.’ ‘Outside’ as it denotes a difference that is not as highly valued makes sense to me as something to talk about.”

Dr. Hardenbrook expanded on the idea of making assumptions by saying that it is easy to make assumptions about someone because of differences in physical features. “I don’t look like I’m other,” she said, “but I think I am in some pieces of my identity.”

Carol Swain , professor of law and political science, mentioned assumptions in a similar context. “Some of the ways in which I differ from my students are obvious when I walk in the room,” she said. “My students see a black woman, and they assume I’m going to have a whole host of viewpoints that they associate with blacks. They quickly see that it’s not that simple, and they comment that that comes as a pleasant surprise. If there’s one thing that I know that I’m doing, it’s dispelling stereotypes that all women or all blacks think alike. I’m not going out of my way to do that, but operating as an independent minded person achieves that result.”

A Culture of Inquiry . When individuals hold personal opinions and beliefs on a certain topic, that topic can be difficult to discuss critically in an academic environment. A number of teaching strategies exist for dealing with this difficulty.

Many of the faculty members described ways in which they help their students to examine critically topics and issues about which some individuals have strongly held personal opinions and beliefs, especially when the opinions and beliefs of the teacher differ from those of the students. David Wood , professor of philosophy, said that he tries to create a “culture of inquiry.”

“One of the things I try to do in my courses,” Dr. Wood said, “is to encourage students who have deep-seated beliefs that matter to them enormously to entertain alternative possibilities. I give them the sense that this is a free space, a space of free discussion, and I often ask them to argue positions they don’t agree with or believe in. The point of this is to develop a kind of culture, a culture of inquiry.”

“I try to create a space in which all kinds of differences are allowed and legitimate,” continued Dr. Wood, “a space in which argument and justification is the name of the game. As long as you’re willing to play by the rules, anyone can join in. There’s a certain kind of safety in having those kinds of ground rules.”

Linda Manning observed that creating this atmosphere can be challenging. “When we present another perspective on certain issues, some people hear a threat. The challenge heard is, ‘There’s something wrong with the way you do it because I’m suggesting that someone else does it differently.'” She added, “We have to be aware of that perceived threat when we approach topics our students view as personal.”

Gay Welch , university chaplain and assistant professor of religious studies, spoke of the role she plays as teacher in her classroom discussions. “One of the things I make clear to the students in my course on ethics and feminism,” she said, “is that the ‘teacher in the pulpit, students in the pew’ model is not the way I teach the course. I want them to envision it more like people sharing a meal and passing things back and forth. I grant that I had to make a syllabus, I have to assign grades, and I have sat at the table many times before. But one of the major points I’m trying to teach is that knowledge appears differently depending on who the knower is and who the learner is. Everyone brings something to the table.”

Drs. Wood and Welch both encounter students who have strong religious beliefs about some of the issues raised in their courses. Dr. Welch said that her students have to be academic to pass the course. “They can be confessional if they want,” she added. A student might say, “The author believes this, but I think this way.” “That’s fine,” Dr. Welch said, “as long as you make the distinction between yourself as a scholar and yourself as a believing person, knowing all the while that those are dimensions of yourself that are not ultimately separable.”

Carolyn Dever , associate professor of English, also spoke about this issue, saying that it is especially hard for freshmen to make the distinction between the personal and the academic. “It’s hard to be a freshman,” she said. “The separation from family, whether it’s a happy thing or a cause for homesickness; the taking on of a new identity; the Greek system and the selection process they go through for sororities and fraternities – all of this makes for an extremely transitional year. The personal bleeds into the classroom.”

Disclosure of Differences . When a teacher’s personal experiences and beliefs are relevant to course content, that teacher might or might not make those connections evident to his or her students. The decision whether to do that is often based in part on the teacher’s philosophy of teaching.

Although several faculty members described very different ways in which they navigate the process of disclosing differences that are less visible, they all connected their self-identification strategies to their teaching philosophies. Lucius Outlaw , professor of philosophy and director of the African-American Studies Program, said that he makes an effort to tell his students who he is. “I’m always invoking the personal,” he said. “I’ll invoke the personal to give historical perspective on things and as a way of asking the students to tell their stories. I want to get these things in front of us so that we can see similarities and differences and make the subject matter come alive. It’s not a matter of reading a chapter, taking good notes, taking a midterm and a final, and going on to the next thing. I work at personalizing the content because that’s where real education takes place.”

Carol Swain also said that she is open with her students about her personal views and experiences when she feels it is relevant. “I don’t see any reason to pretend that, as a professor, I don’t have any viewpoints,” she said. “Especially in a course on race or politics or current public policy, the students will certainly try to figure out where you stand because everyone stands somewhere.”

“Some students here are of very modest economic backgrounds,” Dr. Swain continued, “and this comes out in my classes from time to time. I’m very open about my background coming from poverty, and I think that encourages them to not be embarrassed by their roots. I think that the other students listen and learn about things that they would not have thought about before. Students know I’m a Christian, too. I don’t believe it’s something I should try to hide. It means a lot to students here who are Christians and feel like they are in a foreign environment where you can’t express your views about who you are.”

The use of self-identification by a teacher to help students be open about themselves was also mentioned by David Wood. “I’m a vegetarian. I’m a semi-pacifist. I have various left-of-center political positions. I tell my students these things about myself to help license their own self- disclosure.”

Dr. Wood mentioned one of the challenges associated with a teacher’s self-affirmation. “It is important that I have already established an atmosphere in which they don’t think they have to be like me,” he said. “I don’t always succeed. Sometimes students will want to say, ‘You’re the teacher. You’re grading this paper. Do you mind if I take up the pro meat industry position?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely not, but you have to argue it well.’ Do they trust me? I hope so, but the issue of trust is fascinating and complex and it never ends.”

Other faculty members indicated that they are more hesitant when it comes to self-identification. Susan Ford Wiltshire , professor of classics, described how important it is for her to be accessible to her students. “One of the things I learned early on,” she said, “was formulated for me by the Indian poet Tagore. He said, ‘The shade of my tree is for passers-by; its fruit for those for whom I wait.’ I usually know who the shade-tree people are, but I never know who the fruit people are until they come to me, and so I have to be accessible. I have to be there when, for any reason, a student wants to know more or talk more about something I know about.”

“As a result,” she continued, “I tend to disclose my personal beliefs indirectly in order to maintain my accessibility to my students.” She related a story she told to her students about a time she visited the White House. The story came up in the context of a course discussion on Roman court poets, and while the story mentioned a particular political party, she said, “I told that story without identifying my political affiliation. I don’t feel comfortable revealing some things directly. I have some power over these students. I would not want to abuse that.”

Dr. Wiltshire indicated that she is careful when asking her students to self-identify as well. She described a freshman seminar she teaches on how the Greeks view the good life. Near the end of the semester, the topic turns to comparisons with Judaism and Christianity. “At that point,” Dr. Wiltshire said, “it seems to me to matter where the students are coming from religiously, but I would never ask them.” Instead, she has the students anonymously describe their religious tradition on note cards. The note cards are shuffled, and each student reads aloud a random card. “Then the whole class knows what the environment is,” she continued. “We all benefit from that.”

Carolyn Dever also indicated that she handles self-identification delicately in her classroom. “I’m a lesbian,” she said, “and I don’t self-identify in terms of sexuality to my classes. I’m certainly not in hiding, but it’s important to teach students to interrogate their presuppositions in a way that doesn’t link that exclusively to their relationship with the teacher they happen to be working with. I want to teach my students to think in complicated ways about sexuality and race because they are complicated issues that the students have a deep understanding of, not just because I made them or because I challenged some kind of personal assumptions that they had.”

“Another reason I tend not to self-identify in the classroom,” she added, “is that students can sometimes interpret that as taking sides. I have to be as good a teacher for a student who is different from me as I am for a student who is similar to me, whatever that may mean. It’s not practical for my personhood to be invisible when I teach. That’s just not realistic. It’s something that I use, but I try to use it very selectively and very responsibly as a way of teaching well. That’s what works for me.”

Differences and Course Design . Student-teacher differences are sometimes relevant to the content and learning activities a teacher chooses to include in his or her courses.

Two of the faculty members described ways in which their course design was influenced by their personal perspectives. Cynthia Paschal , an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, mentioned that when she began teaching systems physiology at Vanderbilt, one of the topics she added to the syllabus was reproductive physiology. “I think it’s a fascinating area,” she said, “one that can involve biomedical engineering, biomedical ethics, and biotechnology. Like gastrointestinal physiology, it’s a part of physiology where the students are very aware to some extent of how their own bodies function. That can be a starting point for discussing what technologies can be used to help other people.”

“Teaching it is challenging,” Dr. Paschal added. “As a female professor, to talk about the male and female sexual acts and menstrual cycles – it’s just a landmine. I’m sure I thoroughly offended some people. I hope not, but sometimes you can’t avoid that. The message I try to bring home to them is that this is science and engineering, it’s important, and, yes, it’s a little uncomfortable. So is life. Part of training an engineer is training them to, I hate to say it but, turn off their emotions and plough through. Identify the problem, figure out the parameters, and find the solution.”

Linda Manning recently taught a course on the psychology of women in which many of the students were psychology majors who had a firm biological approach to psychology. “An approach,” she said, “distinct and different from my approach from a feminist perspective.” Dr. Manning said that she had to step back and address the students’ assumptions about the nature of understanding in the field of psychology. “We had an ongoing debate about how we think about human behavior and the legitimacy of thinking about human behavior in terms of social construction,” she added.

This debate manifested itself during a collaborative learning project Dr. Manning assigned her students. “When it came time for the projects in this course,” she said, “I had the students generate topics. One topic these students were determined to study was the modern homemaker. I was delighted to let them do that topic because I knew that the only psychological research they were going to find on homemaking was socially constructed psychological research.”

“Because I am a feminist and identify that way,” Dr. Manning continued. “I believe that some students make certain assumptions about me, which include that I am anti-male, anti-family, or anti-child. That is not at all my understanding of myself nor my understanding of the knowledge I am trying to share with them. This project was a way for me to have them see that without arguing with them about it, and it worked beautifully. Their presentation was wonderfully done, but every bit of it was based on literature about the social construction of behaviors. Their own research brought them to a deeper understanding.”

The Center thanks the faculty members quoted above for their time and insight.

From: Teaching Forum 5:2 Spring 2003 CFT Newsletter